Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Building Roads: Land vs. Ocean

Building a land road is a complex task. Extensive preparation work and the participation of professionals from various fields is required. But in spite of this, the difficulties involved in connecting point “A” with point “B” can be overcome relatively easily. The existence of constant references, for example, makes the mission much easier.

But an “oceanic road” is another story. At the beginning of the Modern Age the ocean was an empty space that needed a reference system to become a reliable environment, suitable for the construction of safe transoceanic routes. In addition, new professionals and social agents were needed to shape and consolidate these routes. Thus, the ways of the sea, compared to those of the land, did not seem easy to tame. Few words illustrate so well this maritime-terrestrial dichotomy as those collected by Martín Cortés de Albácar in his Breve compendio de la Sphera y de la Arte de Navegar, of 1551 (fol. 61v):
I say that sailing is nothing more than walking on water from one place to another. [...] This way differs from the way of the earth in three things: that of the earth is firm, this way is flexible; that of the earth remains, this way is movable, and that of the earth is marked and that of the sea is unknown. And if the ways of the earth are steep and rough, the sea matches them with dead calms (serenas) and storms. Being such a difficult path, it would be difficult to put it into words, or to write it down with a pen.
Portrait of Martín Cortés. In Breve compendio de la Sphera y de la Arte de Navegar,
by Martín Cortés de Albácar (1556). Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid).

Despite the challenging nature of the problem, the Iberian empires of the sixteenth century managed to criss-cross the entire world through multiple transoceanic routes. The scale of the globe had changed completely. Point “A” could still be Lisbon or Seville, but point “B” was no longer a handful of miles away, but several thousand, in Goa, New Spain, or Malacca.
[José María Moreno Madrid]

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